Old South: Heat, lightning, hail and flood

By Elton Camp

Folks in North Alabama had to deal with dangers related to summer weather, such as lightning, floods and hail.

“If hit gits too hot, hit shore kin do harm,” Milas commented during one particularly blazing July day.

Lucas was a man in his mid-forties, with two minor children at home. He and a grown son worked most of the day on the back forty. Late in the afternoon, the man became agitated.

“I can’t hardly beathe,” he said with a shaky voice. “I ain’t exactly shore where I am or whut I’m supposed t’ b’ doin’. Kin y’u bring me a drank from thet spring over thar by th’ boulders?”  He pointed toward a slight rise created by a terrace.

“Thar ain’t no spring out here ’n th’ field, Paw,” his son replied. He realized that his father was hallucinating. “Y’u look powerful sick. Hit’s time fer us t’ go t’ th’ house.”

Lucas took a few steps, but reeled and fell to the ground. His son dashed to his assistance to find that he wasn’t sweating although his skin looked red and felt hot. Calling and shaking did no good. The unconscious man breathed erratically.

The son quickly unhitched the mule from the plow, heaved his father across its back, and rushed him to the house. The heatstroke was a medical emergency, but his family only knew to get him in the shade and wipe him with cool water from the well. He was never again quite the same.

Summer weather could bring thunderstorms with high winds, lightning and hail. Occasionally, both humans and animals were injured or even killed.

“One night, th’ yeer afore Leon wuz born,” Milas recalled, “we had th’ worst lightnin’ storm I ever knew. Ever few seconds hit would light up bright as day. Th’ thunder was upon us almost immediate.  Mirandey an’ th’ chillun spent all night ’n th storm pit.”

The next morning, the family learned that a neighbor had lost his entire herd–six cows– to the lightning. The man lamented the serious loss to Milas.

“They wuz gathered unner a oak tree fer pertection, but hit work’d ’gain ’em. Lightnin’ hit th’ tree, split th’ trunk clear t’ th’ ground an’ kilt t’ whole bunch. I font ’em layin’ on th’ ground.”

Hail, usually small pieces, might accompany thunderstorms. It might accumulate enough to whiten the ground, but caused no damage. Large hailstones rarely fell. Property could be damaged and lives endangered.

Elvira Reed, the oldest person in the area, never tired of relating, to anyone who would listen, an occurrence from her childhood.

“I wuz ’bout ten yeers old when hit com’. Th’ hail started ’n like common, but soon hunks ez big ez a man’s fist began t’ drap. Mor’ ’n mor’ crashed down. Hit beat th’ tin roof t’ flinders on th’ house an’ outbuildings and tore up th’ crops somethin’ terrible. Thar warn’t hardly no corn made thet yeer an’ th’ cotton was sparse. Even th’ leaves wuz beat off o’ trees, but they didn’t seem t’ b’ hurt so much. Th’ strangest thing wuz thet three miles away there wuz nary a piece fell.”

Flooding could occur. Robert Gibbs inspected his field the next morning after a day and night of heavy rain. Swirling creek water had washed away about two acres of his corn crop. His house, however, stood on a rise. Nobody was foolish enough to build on a spot subject to flooding.